A rainbow for China’s orphans

The Rainbow Program is a groundbreaking partnership between the Chinese government and international nonprofit groups that's helping China reimagine its entire child welfare system.

Aly Song/Reuters/File
A three-year-old girl smiles at an orphanage in Fuyang, located in China's Anhui Province. China's Rainbow Program aims to ensure that a trained and caring adult is in the life of every orphaned child in China.

June 1 is “Children’s Day” in China. It’s a day when every child can feel important—celebrated with parties and music and sweet treats by parents, schools, politicians, and the media.

In 2000, before Half the Sky’s nurture and enrichment programs for orphaned children began to roll out across China, for those who must spend their childhoods inside China’s welfare institutions, it was pretty much the only day their very existence was acknowledged.

When Half the Sky came along offering an innovative approach to bringing the love of family to orphaned children, the days got considerably brighter, but only for a handful of the hundreds of thousands just waiting for life to begin. Still, even on a small scale, we were making real change.

And the Chinese government was watching. On Children’s Day in 2006, then President Hu Jintao visited an orphanage in Beijing and made a pronouncement that took our quiet revolution to the entire nation. He spoke of the plight of orphaned and disabled children:

“They are the weakest and neediest group in our society. They need most care and love. Party committee and government at all levels must put these special children in their hearts—improve their care and education. We must mobilize the whole society to share in care and love for the orphans. We must bring them to the same level as other children, to live and grow happily under the same blue sky of the motherland as us all.”

And change would follow. Not overnight—China had other priorities, for sure. But from that day, the Chinese government’s cooperation with Half the Sky gathered steam. And five years later, in 2011, on another Children’s Day, a ceremony took place at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing that changed everything.

The hall was filled with dignitaries and donors and Half the Sky staffers and a few dozen singing children. On the screen before us, more children sang—adopted Chinese children who lived all over the world and children who still lived in orphanages. They sang about wanting the world to be filled with love. For orphans in China, that wish was about to come true on an only-in-China scale. The Rainbow Program was officially launched.

China’s Rainbow Program is a groundbreaking partnership between government, the JPMorgan Chase Foundation, private family foundations, and Half the Sky—the first national child welfare initiative in China. Its mission is to train every single child welfare worker in the country in a proven approach to providing family-like care to children who’ve never known love. To help China reimagine its entire child welfare system.

Providing a caring adult in the life of every orphaned child in China was, not so long ago, my “impossible” dream. But here it was utterly possible—even likely to be realized—in the Great Hall of the People, no less.

So, how are we doing?

Three years later, through 159 training sessions in 18 of the country’s 31 provinces and municipalities, we’ve trained 5,446 child welfare workers and administrators from 350 welfare institutions. We’ve already exceeded the original goal of 377 institutions trained over six years.

But, of course, those are only numbers, and training is only the beginning.

To ensure that orphanage directors will have the support they need when they try to replicate our approach, we’ve placed Half the Sky child development experts in each of our model children’s centers, usually in the provincial capitals. Those permanent Half the Sky staff, along with their government counterparts, continue promoting professional development among welfare workers throughout the province, offering workshops, mentorships, and in-service training to caregivers who wish to create Half the Sky–inspired programs in their own orphanages, shelters, and medical care facilities.

Through the Rainbow Program, we launched 1jiaren.org, a nationwide online learning platform that brings the child welfare community together to discuss best practices, view a video resource library, and take online courses for further certification. We’ve established a sister foundation in China, so that Chinese citizens can support programs in their communities offering quality care for marginalized children. With government, we’ve developed national standards for care and will soon be offering courses and accreditation through Beijing Normal University.

All of this is about professionalizing what was once a demeaning job, assigned to those who could do nothing else.

The Rainbow Program has inspired caregivers and administrators to make concrete and lasting changes at the orphanages where they work, changes that indicate that the much-publicized failings of institutional care in which children fall behind developmentally because they do not receive the responsive care that is crucial for healthy development, will one day be a distant memory.

Vice Director Liu Fang of the Zhuzhou Children’s Welfare Institute is one of a number of orphanage administrators who believe that the new dawn for child welfare in China has arrived: “Rainbow trainings are like a pebble thrown into the lake. Each of the ripples created represents a change that training brings to the institutions.”

Those ripples start with interactive trainings that include lectures and small discussion groups, and then progress to hands-on work with the children. Many of the younger trainees lack practical experience with children and many of the older trainees have experience only with basic care and feeding, so at first they keep their distance.

But when Half the Sky’s trainers, who are chosen not just for their knowledge and experience but also their inspirational teaching skills, sit down on the mat, intently focusing on one child, the trainees lose their hesitancy. They learn to carefully observe each child, develop a secure attachment, and create a learning environment that encourages the children to explore rather than simply recite “a bunch of numbers and facts,” as one trainee said.

Trainees come to understand why, like children in loving families, institutionalized children should not languish in cribs: “After our Rainbow training, we immediately bought comfortable mats with soothing colors. They free the children from their tiny beds,” said caregiver Ye Hong from Sichuan Province.

Invariably trainees are stunned to see the juxtaposition of photos of shattered children when they first enter Half the Sky’s programs with joyous family photos of the children they have become. The caregivers gain a new appreciation not only of the potential of each child in their care, but also about the importance of their jobs.

“I was greatly touched by the story of little Feifei. They gave up on her because they believed she had brain disease. Now she is a happy teenager in Holland. I never thought our simple work could change the life of a child,” said Zhou Jijun after her training in Hunan Province.

The simple yet profound message that nurturing children transforms their lives is the essence of the Rainbow Program that province by province and orphanage by orphanage is ushering in a new era for the Chinese child welfare system. It won’t be long before every day in China is Children’s Day. For all children.

Jenny Bowen is founder and CEO of Half the Sky Foundation.

This article originally appeared at the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship, the premier international platform for accelerating entrepreneurial approaches and innovative solutions to the world’s most pressing social issues.

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